In the late '90s, nobody required a gaming microphone. If you were at QuakeCon and wanted to arouse raging envy among your fellow PC elitists, your best choice was a flashy, chromed-out case—webcams didn't even exist yet. You recognise what I'm referring to: the crystal chassis, the sparkling water-cooling kits, and the massive fans that made a spaceship's takeoff noise. This was the benchmark that every aspiring geek was supposed to aim for. Just a massive machine and a big monitor churning out Counter-Strike headshots all night long—no peripherals, no frills. You might bring that PC to your neighbourhood LAN party and make a statement.
The only folks who owned computer microphones in this beautiful age used them for their day jobs.
Since then, a number of decades have passed. A new, pervasive trend can be seen if you browse through the arrogant posts on r/Battlestations(opens in new tab) today: workstations with enormous, studio-quality microphones sitting on them as if the owners are about to record a podcast or play 10 hours of Apex Legends for a live audience. Mics are commonplace. They have become a fashion staple, similar to wearing a pocket square to a wedding.
There have undoubtedly been other developments in the gamer aesthetic: These days, few people have a 30-inch CRT screen, and we don't buy graphics cards with gruesome low-res aliens on them. The nagging need to broadcast your voice with the sonorous depth of a billionaire Twitch broadcaster, even to an audience of three on Discord, is the biggest tidal change in the community.
From being a curious item at a niche store, microphones have evolved into an absolute need. Without them, our Battlestations appear depressed and underfed.
A decent audio setup will undoubtedly make someone envious, asserts Andrew, a 15-year-old Floridian who recently displayed his gear in a noteworthy r/Battlestations post. Look closely, and you'll see a crimson PC chassis, a stiff computer chair, and yep, a hanging microphone with a mesh tip. "The same applies whether I see someone using a great keyboard or anything else. Someone is going to be envious of what you have."
As a zoomer, Andrew is at the vanguard of the PC contingent's generational transition. He was looking for a microphone that was better than the cheap plastic headsets that were still the norm in matchmaking lines in the 2000s and 2010s. However, as gamers rose to fame in the second half of the decade—and as the stereotype of gamers changed from a grognard living in a basement to a dyed-in-the-wool kid in a LA mansion—so did the men and women who followed them.
My headset is actually in perfect working order. I rarely need to capture professional audio because I can be heard by my pals just fine. However, after assimilating the Twitch standards and observing all the fancy HyperX mics trickling over the timeline, I have begun to experience a primal sense of inadequacy as a gamer that takes me back to my adolescence. Spend a day browsing at PC accessories until your own workstation appears barren and sparse without an amplifier if you want to know how susceptible you are to the whims of consumer movements—even at the apparently robust age of 31.
"I believe that all young people desire a "full" streaming setup similar to what they see used by their favourite internet streamers. Therefore, whether they use it for streaming or simply occasionally, it has evolved into a whole setup "a different poster on r/Battlestations, who bought a $99 Blue Yeti, claims. "I believe it is entirely motivated by a desire to emulate the streamers they admire."
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact start date of this revolution. Livestreaming is more ancient than most people realise; in the early 1990s, schoolchildren were broadcasting livestreams on local access TV. In high school, which was now 15 years ago, I was watching Stickam. Back then, laptops didn't even have built-in microphones, thus using external equipment was necessary, not optional. (For example, during vanilla World of Warcraft raids, where I coordinated healing rotations using a tinny, beige microphone I borrowed from my folks, some of my fondest gaming experiences occurred.) Xbox Live undoubtedly played a part in bringing voice chat into the gaming mainstream and away from hardcore PC Ventrilo servers, but inexpensive, tinny headphones were still the standard for years.
Because Ninja, Shroud, and Pokimane spend a large portion of their public lives with their faces partially covered by a fuzzy black mass, my best guess is that dedicated mics became more widely used around the time that young people started getting the majority of their gaming information from YouTube.
The title of a Reddit discussion from the summer of 2018 asked, "Why are mics so popular in Battlestations?" I'd argue that this was the pinnacle of the rise of the gamer celebrity. (I rest my case; it was the year Drake streamed Fortnite.) Everybody envisions themselves as a YouTuber, according to the theories that seep through the answers.
In an interview with PC Gamer, Adam, a 26-year-old Canadian and another owner of a Blue Yeti, claims that "streaming has blossomed as a form of entertainment." So, each stream is promoting a "battlestation," if you will. In fact, viewership continues to grow year after year.
I don't have any fantasies about being a social media celebrity. Both overseeing a community of schoolchildren on lunch break and playing the same videogame for thousands of hours seem like completely soul-destroying ideas. I don't think I'm alone in that, and I have a feeling that many of you who are reading this narrative share my sentiments. Despite this, Leif Johnson, a veteran journalist, and contributor to PC Gamer, does highlight one way that our generation of elderly greybeards is affected by microphone envy. He thinks back to a recent Valorous session he had with his regular group of friends. One of them had switched from utilizing his external microphone to a headset, which had a poorer fidelity than the resonant warmth he was used to and crackled.
Johnson admits that he used some subtle jabs in an effort to grab the other microphone back. "I appreciate it when they have a great mic because in games like that I prefer to be able to hear the person as well as possible."
Man, this is the direction we're going in. We will gradually lose patience with anyone still using a shoddy old headset as microphones gain popularity and as we grow accustomed to hearing our friends speak with the crystal-clear clarity of podcasters. Yes, when we criticised MechWarrior tactics on a low bitrate in the early Xbox Live days, that was satisfactory.
However, by 2022, gamers have become accustomed to the rich texture of YouTube husslers and Twitch streamers. Expect to be laughed out of the party if you arrive with a microphone that makes you sound like Leeroy Jenkins. And everyone who is anyone is aware that you require the Rode mic arm and not a $15 knockoff from Amazon.
Expect this tendency to continue for some time without changing. All of us will eventually use external microphones for both aesthetically pleasing and practical reasons. It is yet another item to purchase for a hobby where the goals are always shifting. (The RAM, the graphics cards, the carved decals on the chassis, the completely pointless water-cooling system, and on and on forever.) Every subculture, I think, is intended to operate in the same way—the youth determine the norms, and grownups scramble to keep up.
Just knowing that I'm about to lose $150 makes me feel worse than I already do. At least my voice will sound fantastic, though.